Between the 1870s and 1900, Africa faced European imperialist aggression, diplomatic pressures, military invasions, and eventual conquest and colonization. At the same time, African societies put up various forms of resistance against the attempt to colonize their countries and impose foreign domination. By the early twentieth century, however, much of Africa, except Ethiopia and Liberia, had been colonized by European powers.
The European imperialist push into Africa was motivated by three main factors, economic, political, and social. It developed in the nineteenth century following the collapse of the profitability of the slave trade, its abolition and suppression, as well as the expansion of the European capitalist Industrial Revolution. The imperatives of capitalist industrialization—including the demand for assured sources of raw materials, the search for guaranteed markets and profitable investment outlets—spurred the European scramble and the partition and eventual conquest of Africa. Thus the primary motivation for European intrusion was economic.
Colonial Conquest in Africa
The 19th century in Europe was a time of industrialization. Factories in Europe required raw materials to be manufactured into marketable products. As a result, Europeans sought both a source of raw materials, as well as, a market for manufactured goods in Africa. This economic motivation played a large role in the colonization of Africa. In page 59 you will learn more about the economic reasons for colonial order and the economic practices introduced by colonial governments.
Politics in Europe also led to the colonization of Africa. African Politics will show how nationalism in Europe resulted in the formation of the nation-states in Europe that we are familiar with today. Nationalism-a strong of identification with and pride in one’s nation-resulted in competition between European nations. This competition often resulted in wars between nations. Competition over colonial expansion in Africa was another way that national competition between European nations was demonstrated in the late 19th century. One of the causes of the Scramble for Africa, (1885-1910) which resulted in the colonization of all of Africa in just twenty-five years, was the competition between European nations. No major nation wanted to be without colonies. The competition was particularly strong between Britain, France, and Germany, the strongest European nation-states in the late 19th century.
In addition, ideologies of racial hierarchy were prevalent in Europe in the 19th century. Many Europeans viewed themselves as the most advanced civilization in the world, and some saw it as their mission to “enlighten” and “civilize” people in the rest of the world. This feeling of racial superiority and “responsibility” was captured in a poem written in 1899, The White Man’s Burden by the British poet Rudyard Kipling (click on the title to read it). Many inaccurate and racialized stereotypes of African peoples, which existed at the time, were used to justify colonialism in Africa.
The colonization of Africa coincided with the expansion of Christian missionary activity in Africa. You will remember from the last module that parts of Africa, such as Ethiopia and Egypt, were home to Christians right from the beginning of Christianity as a region. However, Christianity was introduced to the rest of Africa only in the modern era. Christian missionary activity began in earnest in the 19th century during the same period of time that European countries were becoming more engaged in Africa. Historians do not all agree on what the relationship was between Christian missionary activity and colonialism. However, evidence suggests that while many missionaries opposed the harsher aspects of colonialism, they were supportive the colonization of African countries. Missionaries who supported colonialism believed that European control would provide a political environment that would facilitate missionary activity in Africa. This support for colonialism played an important role in legitimizing the colonial endeavor among the citizens of the colonizing powers in Europe.
The Scramble for Africa
But other factors played an important role in the process. The political impetus derived from the impact of inter-European power struggles and competition for preeminence. Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Spain were competing for power within European power politics. One way to demonstrate national preeminence was through the acquisition of territories around the world, including Africa. The social factor was the third major element. As a result of industrialization, major social problems grew in Europe: unemployment, poverty, homelessness, social displacement from rural areas, and so on. These social problems developed partly because not all people could be absorbed by the new capitalist industries. One way to resolve this problem was to acquire colonies and export this “surplus population.” This led to the establishment of settler-colonies in Algeria, Tunisia, South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, and central African areas like Zimbabwe and Zambia. Eventually the overriding economic factors led to the colonization of other parts of Africa.
Thus it was the interplay of these economic, political, and social factors and forces that led to the scramble for Africa and the frenzied attempts by European commercial, military, and political agents to declare and establish a stake in different parts of the continent through inter-imperialist commercial competition, the declaration of exclusive claims to particular territories for trade, the imposition of tariffs against other European traders, and claims to exclusive control of waterways and commercial routes in different parts of Africa.

In nearly all African countries today, the language used in government and media is a relic inherited from one of these waves of colonisation. The existence of a vast African diaspora is largely the legacy of the practice of transporting millions of African slaves out of the continent by these external colonisers. Modern scholars also blame the current under-development of Africa on the colonial era.

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